What Does An Autism Screening Test Include?

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability “that involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication, and restricted/repetitive behaviors” (via American Psychiatric Association), though all autistic folks experience ASD differently. That is, the disorder encompasses a wide spectrum of symptoms that vary from person to person. 

Moreover, autism can be more difficult to diagnose since there’s no real medical test for this disorder. However, parents can have doctors screen their children for autism early on if they notice developmental delays or signs of autism early on. Here, we’ll take a look at the signs of autism, the different types of screenings available, and what parents should know before having their child undergo an autism screening test.

The Early Signs of Autism Can Be Spotted at a Young Age

According to the American Psychiatric Association, signs of autism can be identified when a child is very young. Usually, these signs appear in kids who are two or three years old, though some developmental delays associated with autism have manifested in children at 18 months old. 

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that some early signs of autism can include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Having little interest in other children or caretakers
  • Limited display of language, i.e. having fewer words than their peers or finding it difficult to communicate verbally
  • Getting upset by minor changes in routine.

If parents can monitor how their child is growing and changing over time, they may spot signs of developmental delays, all of which can be mentioned to a pediatrician. The CDC also provides a list of important developmental milestones that a child should reach between the ages of two months to five years old. Checking this list may help parents determine if an autism evaluation test may be necessary for their child. Early detection is key when it comes to providing proper support to an autistic child. 

There Are Certain Ages Where Screenings for Autism Are Appropriate

At your child’s checkups, doctors or nurses will typically do a developmental screening, particularly for babies and toddlers. Parents can answer questions about a child’s development — in areas such as speech, movement, behavior, and emotions. Typically, with a developmental screening, doctors will look for signs of autism, or developmental delays, in children at 9 months, 18 months, and 24 months.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that autism screenings be a part of standard 18- and 24-month-old checkups, whereas the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) recommends that all children should be screened at 9, 18, and 24 (or 30) months. If this isn’t a routine check during your child’s visit, you can request it. Of course, these routine screenings only help recognize potential signs of autism. If a professional notices a potential sign, a more comprehensive screening is needed to diagnose autism. 

Doctors Can Provide Comprehensive Screening Tests for Autism

There are a variety of formal and informal screening tools for autism. One popular, informal screening test is the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT). The M-CHAT is a popular 20-question test designed for toddlers between 16 and 30 months old. The test asks questions about a child’s behavior, like if they point at interesting things or respond when their name is called. The results of the test will indicate if further evaluation is required. 

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Another tool is the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ), which examines developmental challenges at specific ages. The Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers & Young Children (STAT) is another tool that professionals use to screen for autism in children between 24 and 36 months of age. Community service providers who assess young children and who have experience with autism typically use this tool. Used to evaluate the social and behavioral traits of toddlers, the STAT consists of 12 items and the assessment takes about 20 minutes.

Ultimately, a specialist will need to make an official diagnosis of autism in a child. That diagnosis is typically based on the criteria described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM-5 recognizes two broad diagnostic criteria for autism:

  1. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction.
  2. Restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, or activities.

In addition to questions, the actual evaluation will be based in direct observation of a child, so that the professional can assess how they communicate, their social awareness, interactions, behaviors, and more. In all likelihood, clinicians will interview the parents about the child’s history and, in some cases, reach out to educators who have worked with the child. Ahead of the evaluation, parents should learn as much as they can about autism, so that if they have any questions they can ask the clinician. 

All of this said, the symptoms of autism must be present in the early developmental period of a child’s life in order for them to receive a diagnosis. However, these symptoms may not fully manifest until later in life. 

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